Some of you may recall news of NASA successfully testing a laser at the moon last month; the concept may have floated past you without much consideration considering NASA’s general attachment to firing things at the moon.
This laser stands as a complete opposite of anything Moonraker-esque, though. Rather, it represents the potential for a wide-sweeping change to communications that could eventually replace the fiber-optic cable.
On Oct. 18, NASA’s Lunar Laser Communications Demonstration was able to break new ground by beaming data from its position in lunar orbit to Earth at a rate of 622 Mbps. The event was historic, and represented a major potential advancement for space communications– the signal provided significantly more data capacity than currently-used radio waves.
The concept is known as free-space optical communications; the free space refers to the fact that it takes place through a free and open space, such as air or the vacuum of space. Lasers are used to transmit information in a straight line from point A to point B. The technology, or at least the concept, has been kicked about for decades now, but the advent of a cheaper alternative in fiberoptic cable early on led to a deviation away from laser communication.
NASA’s not the only one taking a closer look at free space optical communication, though; the U.S. military has been entering t he game with its own uses.
The increasing amount of data the U.S. military utilizes in its communications is becoming increasingly limited by inherent limits in the radio spectrum that the military is allowed to use– an increasing reliance on remotely-piloted vehicles and autonomous technology is leading to even further demand. Lasers represent an avenue for the military to no longer rely directly on radio frequencies.
The security that comes with the technology is also proving compelling for the military: lasers transmit in a direct line that can only be intercepted by standing directly in the path of the beam, which makes it highly apparent that someone is listening.
The potential for this to benefit the communications world as a whole still seems further down the line, though. Existing infrastructure better serves the utilization of satellite communications, radio frequencies and fiberoptic cable networks to pass information along. However, limits to all of these technologies have been noted by data providers, and as global consumers increasingly demand more information through more channels of media consumption, existing models may not be able to meet demand.
Lasers could then potentially act as a liberating force from fears of data throttling. The future of infrared lasers beaming the next season of your favorite TV show is still far-off, though, and the technology has its own limits: the beams can’t pass through or bend around anything. Conditions affecting the clarity of that open air can also potentially disrupt communications.
Nevertheless, the concept presents an interesting potential for what could be in store for the future. After all, the Internet itself started out as a project to improve communication networks for the U.S. Department of Defense– look where that’s gone now.